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Italian Memories

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By Sowmya Dechamma

The train was late. We had bought a ticket to Forli from Bologna for a slow train from a tabaccheria, a tobacconist, arguably Italy’s lifeline, for anything from tobacco to tickets to stamps. We were just getting used to the maps, schedule, and time table. We had to figure out when the next train would arrive and if our tickets would be valid for it.

My Italian was limited to gratia and prego. By then it was clear that to expect English in Italy was to expect Kodava in Delhi. So we tried asking people through gestures and some English. No use. People hardly understood us and we hardly understood them.


I approached an Italian family, an old couple, their daughter, and granddaughter. The daughter and granddaughter looked so alike that I kept staring at them for a while before approaching them. Assuming that the youngest of them all, the granddaughter, who must not have been more than 18 years old might know some English, I asked “Do you know what happened to the train to Forli? The 5.30 one?” The girl smiled and it was her mother who managed a few English words, but not enough for us.

I suddenly saw the young girl typing furiously on her smart phone and was not too amused. She then gestured me to read! She had the google translator page on and had typed something in Italian which google translated as “the train to Forli is deleted” and “the next train to Forli is at 7.10 pm.”

And we were on our way to a seminar on Translation Studies.


I called my son one day and asked him to guess what meat I had tasted that day. He asked me for a clue and I said it started with an ‘H’.


“Human!” was his first guess.


I got out from the conference hall uninterested in the paper yet to be read. I walked out of the castle, the medieval castle now with the University of Bologna high up in the hills of Bertinoro – a beautiful town.


I leaned on the parapet wall and watched the panoramic view: small settlements, farm houses, large tracts of farm lands, green cover almost everywhere, not thick, not thin…in patches, desirable. The wind was so strong that it took me a while to light a cigarette.  As I watched, I heard a low rumble coming from somewhere below and turned to look. A tractor was trying to mow the grass or plough the field, I couldn’t see from where I was.


The tractor went in straight lines, took a U turn and mowed a straight line again, clearing the field and ploughing as if it was the mission of its life. On and on it went and up and down it mowed. In five minutes or so the patch was done and I was tense. In my head, it was time for the tractor to go home, rest. From that distance, I had no view of the driver and my concern was for the tractor. To me, it was the worker that worked. I watched anxiously for the path the tractor might take. Relief. Not another patch to clear. It took a path off the field. A few trees and then the tractor went down a slope. It looked as if it was making its way to one of the farm houses beyond. It struggled through the trees making me tense again. With some effort, it got down the slope and the day’s job was done. Rest. I lit another cigarette.  This time I had the formidable wall of the castle to shield the light against the wind and returned back to my spot.


Why do we hate the crow? Black? Cawing sound? I walked into the wilderness next to the Bertinoro Guest House only to find an overgrown but recently trodden path. Long stalks of trampled grass; room enough for a person to walk through. I walked until I reached a small enclosure with a view of the forest and the hill. Two wooden benches and an oval wooden table, few empty beer cans and cigarette butts. For a moment, I imagined medieval royals enjoying a pleasant sunny day. It was sunny and I let the sun fall on my back. I could hear a bird – loud and shrill, and tried unsuccessfully to spot it. As I listened it became louder and shriller, shutting out all other sounds of insects and birds. It took me some effort to focus my ears onto the other sounds. There were many and mostly softer sounds of small birds, chirping, singing, whistling, calling.


A moment’s forgetfulness could take me back to the shrillness of that single bird and it effectively killed every other voice. That reminded me of loudness – of the crow and of humans. Loudness that subsumes, loudness that is oblivious to other voices, loudness that doesn’t let other voices to be heard, loudness that cannot hold the beauty of smaller voices.


There was this woman in front of me in the bus with ear phones on. “Excuse me,” I said, “do you know the stop Scala?” She took off the ear phones and spoke to me in Italian. “No Italian” I said. “Do you speak English?” she asked. I smiled, “What would I do without English? I do not know Scala but you could ask the driver…but wait, I shall ask for you,” she said and before I could say “gratia”, she was talking to the driver.

“The bus will cross two bridges, one across the river and the second across the station. The stop immediately after the second bridge is Scala,” She translated. “Gratia Mile,” I smiled again. “Prego,” she said and got down.


Nandu might like some cheese. And the variety! I can’t even get close to remembering their names. Emmental, parmesan. Asiago, Parmigano-Reggian, Ricotta, Mozzarella di Bufala, Taleggio, and what not!

 I walked to the supermarket closest to A’s house. A and M had given me a list of top five cheese and I marched to Inter-coop, roughly around 1 to 1.5 kms from A’s place. A had said walk straight on the road Della Scala and turn right and walk on via Marco Emilio Lepido until you reach inter-coop. On the way I posted the four post cards – Italian Postal Service – privatized. To their dismay, the people who bought the Italian post from the government found that postal service was dead with no money in the business. And so for M and A, my post cards might never reach the destination or might reach after me.


In my head, I had covered more than a kilometer with the supermarket and the landmark Ducati Motors showroom nowhere in sight. Saturday morning and very few people on the road. A few meters ahead I noticed a man, plump with a stubble, short, not young, not old, walking furiously. I had written down the address so as not to take chances with my Italian. “Excuse me,” I said and showed him the address. “I am ENGLISH,” he said with such force that I gaped.

“Thank you but do you happen to know where inter-coop is?” His “no” was not really a mellowed down version of his, “I am English”


University of Bologna has the distinction of being the world’s first University founded in 1088 AD and functioning till date. One just has to walk through the old university’s corridors to feel humbled by its aura. Bologna was one of the worst hit by the bombs of World War II and most of the university buildings, medieval structures, the famous twin towers, churches, and cathedrals were almost ruined. The old University’s building was rebuilt after the war; an exact replica of its ‘original’ structure – imposing in all its grandeur, suited to the male noble who could seek knowledge. The first ever classrooms – one to teach arts (including classical languages and medicine) and the other to teach legal studies was enough to make anyone feel insignificant.



The library with its books from ancient Latin to 19th century books had an elderly woman as its keeper. Primly dressed, properly formal with jet white hair, she looked at me with friendly suspicion – I in shorts, short unkempt hair, color not white, not black. I pictured myself in her eyes as a trespassing vagabond in the University’s grand scheme of things. “Where are you from?”


“Do you know Italian?”

I smiled, “No”

“You should learn Italian, it is very important”

“Yes, it is. So is Kodava,” I replied.


As I sat on the much famed porticos of Bologna, in front of Saint San Francesco, the basilica of the medieval saint that housed seven churches within, and enjoying the drizzle, I couldn’t help smiling at the young handsome white couple trying to pose with an umbrella for their equally handsome friend-photographer. The poses varied under the umbrella, the umbrella thrown back for a kiss, umbrella shielding a kiss, then a hug, on tiptoe and so on…


Equally fascinating were two boys kicking the ball against the compound walls of the church. In a few minutes the black boy with curls falling all over his face transformed into the goalkeeper while the younger white boy tried to get the ball past him. However much he tried, the keeper was too good. They had other audience as well. A middle-aged white man with a cigarette hanging from his mouth asked to be in. His kick was good but not good enough for the keeper. I was tempted. I walked up, but not too heroically, and asked for a chance.

I tried twice. Kicked well. The man with the cigarette flashed a thumps-up sign, impressed. But not the keeper. Not once did the ball go past him. With a “gratia and good job” I walked to piazza Verdi, the always happening University square.


Sowmya Dechamma teaches at the Centre for Comparative Literature, University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad, India. Apart from teaching Comparative Indian Literature and Cultural Discourses in Contemporary India, her research interests include Minority Discourse and Kodava Language and Culture. Her non-academic interests include cycling, badminton, and the joy of raising two children.

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Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.


Read the latest issues of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Inland Labor Migration in India” (Edited by Soma Chatterjee, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada) & “Debating the Disability Law in India” (Edited by Nandini Ghosh, IDSK, Kolkata & Shilpaa Anand, MANUU, Hyderabad).

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